THE IMPENDING DEATH OF A ONCE-GREAT NEWSPAPER

JOHN McGURK 
So Scotland on Sunday, a newspaper I edited and fretted over every day for four years, has been declared “sub-core” by its owners which presumably means they despise it and want shot of it.

The paper has been placed in the same dustbin category as 58 other Johnston Press titles such as the Selkirk Weekend Advertiser, the East Fife Mail and the Glenrothes Gazette which also face extinction unless there’s a buyer which must be a very long shot indeed.

Less than 20 years ago, Scotland on Sunday was an award-winning powerhouse which was so successful that the then owners of The Glasgow Herald were forced into launching their own version to stem the threat of lost advertising.

In those glory days, it sold as many in the west as it did in the east managing to be a truly pan-Scottish title — a status which has never been achieved by either The Scotsman or The Herald.

Two weeks after the appearance of the Sunday Herald in 1999, Scotland on Sunday managed its best ever sale of 132,500 which, for a broadsheet in a very small country with the most competitive newspaper market in the world, was astonishing.

I returned from lunch to find a crate of champagne sitting on my desk along with a congratulatory note from the proprietor of the day, Aidan Barclay, who had believed in the potential of Scotland on Sunday by investing heavily in a two sparkling high quality magazines and three other new sections to accompany it.

The paper won the UK Sunday Newspaper of the Year title in 1997, 1998 and 2000 beating Fleet Street’s finest including The Sunday Times, The Observer, the Sunday Telegraph and Mail on Sunday while there were more national accolades for our use of photography, design and colour.

Writers such as Graham Spiers and Catherine Deveney seemed to be forever picking up individual awards.

We were very often in the thick of it and politicians of all sorts were rarely off the phone to spill the beans usually about their own colleagues rather than their rivals. First Ministers, or those vying for the job, could be particularly troublesome and wearisome.

Donald Dewar gave me a roasting for revealing that the new Scottish Parliament was way over budget. We had been tipped off that it would cost nearly five times the original price tag of £10 million but he was having none of it despite the fact that it eventually reached a staggering £450 million.

An incensed Henry McLeish was on the phone moaning about a critical leader while I was still in bed on a Sunday morning.

Jack McConnell agreed to spill the beans about his time as general secretary of the Scottish Labour Party and signed up for a three part series only to pull out when they discovered what he was gong to say and told him he would be de-selected as a prospective MSP.

Alex Salmond did complete his three-part serialisation about why he had given up the SNP leadership in 2000 and used the proceeds to install a new kitchen in his constituency home in Banff.

We went to war with Lord Robertson, then the Defence Secretary, who was so angry that he called Andrew Neil, the then publisher, and demanded that I be sacked.

Andrew, who was very good at sacking editors, paid no attention because the story was true but there were many other occasions when he was not so supportive. In those days, his bollockings were common-place and it was deeply depressing particularly when he was wrong and when sales were hitting new heights.

Today, Scotland on Sunday may well be another print victim of the digital age but it’s not as simple as that.

In recent years, the paper has been starved of resource, ambition and even a dedicated editor. It has been denuded and filleted with the aim of producing it as cheaply as possible.

It has worked as part of a seven-day operation with The Scotsman, an arrangement which could only succeed if Scotland on Sunday maintained its identity and did not have to rely on left-overs.

With no investment, its cover price has been deliberately jacked-up to squeeze every last drop of profit before the inevitable.

Alas, the harsh reality will be revealed in the six monthly ABC circulation figures, due in the next week or so, which are likely to reveal that the paper now sells below 20,000.

Johnston Press, in announcing their “sub-core” newspapers, have signalled that Scotland on Sunday is in its death throes but no-one appears to be objecting apart from the journalists’ union, therefore, the owners will be able proceed to the next stage without much opposition.

Scotland on Sunday has been graced by a raft of fine journalists since it was established in 1988; too many to mention.

Those I worked alongside in the hey-day of the newspaper— the likes of Iain Martin, Alan Cochrane, Kevin McKenna, Willie Paul and Iain Stewart — must also feel a certain sadness at the demise of their old paper particularly when so much effort, and often so much heartache, was spent to produce it.

The late Bert Hardy, then the managing director of The Scotsman Publications, used to say that a successful newspaper depended on a proprietor to love it and nurture it.

Johnston Press, an organisation ridden with debt and whose market value yesterday was just £38.12 million, has much to answer for.

 

John McGurk was editor of Scotland on Sunday from 1997-2001 and later became editor of The Scotsman and managing editor of the Daily Telegraph.

jcmcgurk@blueyonder.co.uk

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